The Dawn: October 17, 2010

Changing sociology of the walled city

Majid Sheikh 

The sociology of the walled city of Lahore keeps changing every time a shift in history occurs. Almost 1,000 years ago not a single Muslim existed in the city till the first Sufi saint, Shah Ismail, arrived. From the lands to the West migrants in various guises keep coming, altering forever the gene pool of our city.

Last week I parked my car in the lane just opposite where once the actor Dev Anand lived at Bhati Chowk, near the house of the late Dr 'dabkharraba' Bokhari. A few hundred yards into Bazaar Hakeeman, once known as 'Guzar Talwara', I turned to the right where once lived poet Allama Iqbal. They probably called him 'Balla' then. As I proceeded it amazed me that where once everyone spoke the exquisite 'Bhati' Punjabi language, people were speaking Pushto. I stopped, took a turn into another narrow lane and stopped besides a 'tandoor' where long Afghani 'roti' was being produced. This was not the Lahore we knew in our youth. This was another Lahore, a totally alien sociology.

Nearly 5,000 years ago when the city was a small hamlet surrounded by a high mud wall, the first Aryans came, and then came the forces from the land of Faras, and then the white people presumably from Central Asia. We also had invaders from as far away as Egypt. The hungry Afghans, fierce and ruthless, have always been coming, pillaging and stealing our food, our women and our precious gold and jewels and other valuables. The city tolerated them, and slowly absorbed them as one of their own. Today we are, probably, incapable of appreciating the colossal change that the walled city is undergoing, principally because we lack the educational depth to tackle the change in our sociology. Our governments are inept, their minds never going beyond a few personal comforts that the poor end up paying for.

Research tells us that the population of the walled city has been declining after a surge in 1947. In 1971, it had a population of almost 200,000 persons. In Akbar the Great's days it was recorded as being near 300,000 persons. In an area of 2.5 square kilometres with about 20,000 buildings, the walled city has a web of narrow lanes and streets equaling exactly 128 kilometres. Between 1971 and 1981, the population declined by over 15,000 persons as the greatest enemy of our history and traditions – the trading community – started taking over major portions of residential areas to build illegal godowns and warehouses, what to speak of shopping areas for wholesale businesses. Our political leaders, backed by our ruthless bureaucrats, let businesses grow deep into old residential areas. Lahore was betrayed like never before.

Attempts to rectify the situation have failed. On the political front our 'concerned citizens' and our NGOs, whom I have no hesitation in calling 'fashionable degenerates', are least interested. Our MPAs are a disgrace, for they have failed to introduce the 'Walled City of Lahore Protection Act 2010'. My 'deep throat' information is that Shahbaz Sharif has actually thrown it away some place in Raiwind. For him, conservation is bad for his 'trading' constituency.

Today the population that resides permanently inside the walled city is almost 132,500 persons, of whom nearly 60 per cent are Afghan refugees and Internally Displaced Persons from the northern-western areas because of the Taliban troubles. For all you know, the enemy is entrenched firmly within, strongly placed inside the walled city. Every morning thousands of cars and motorcycles and bus passengers invade the walled city to trade and do business. The functioning population crosses over 250,000 persons. Late in the evening, they leave in droves for the faraway residential colonies, leaving behind the poorest of the poor. The wretched of the earth are left to their elements. The original 'Lahori' population of Lahore has almost all left their old city houses for these 'posh' residential colonies. When it gets dark, the people of the walled city speak, in a majority, Pushto. Such is the sociology of the walled city of Lahore, little that we care to study it.

I am confident the average reader is not bothered, for he has nothing to do with the reality of the old walled city. The same is the case with the 'sustainable' Lahore Walled City Project, which sustains itself by reprinting old useless books. 'Progress' they call it. After all history and antiquity is best left in books or newspaper columns. The reality of the walled city is much more appalling that meets the eye.

As I walked through the old bazaar, past Chowk Jhanda inside Mori Gate and headed towards an eastward drift in narrow lanes, I noticed that the shoe business has taken over major portions of the northern side of the old city. In the congested bazaar, Pathans pushed carts full of shoes or shoe accessories. Cobblers sweat away in small factories that feed the entire Punjab and beyond with every type of footwear.

I went over the garbage bins, for that is the best barometer of city life. An old walled city man observed me and came over with a classic Lahori remark: “You have your shoes on, what are you looking for?” I laughed and told him that I was studying how people like him had thrown their history away. He relaxed and invited me for tea. We dwelt on this emotive issue for some time and left promising to return.

Over half of all garbage is leather cuttings and waste. The very soil is being poisoned. The Afghans and Pathans are very poor and, therefore, cheap labour that traders exploit by providing cheap housing. One day, not in the far future, I will not be surprised that chaste Lahori Punjabi will not be spoken by the children in the streets of the walled city. I hope I am wrong. This is a reality we close our eyes to, and all because our political rulers are scared of our bullying traders, whose total tax returns, so a friend informs me, does not cross an average of Rs150 per residing person of the walled city.

This is the sociology that has emerged. My view is that the walled city has been taken over by ruthless traders expanding at an amazing speed. Our government deliberately gives the impression that they are incapable of handling them. The legislation to reverse this trend they are not interested in introducing. The end -- very end -- result is that the extremist elements have entrenched themselves. They can easily lay their hands on any acid or chemical or electronic gadgetry that they might need. Inside internet shops abound, all run by Afghans and people from the tribal areas. Touching them will mean touching the business community that plagues the walled city and our history.

In such circumstances, it comes as no surprise that the people who have supported the project to make sense of the walled city have pulled back, not that it bothers the bureaucrats or politicians like Shahbaz Sharif. The World Bank provided funds for the old walled city, naïve that they are. There is a need to study the sociology before anything of substance is undertaken. That is why the business community must be educated to leave and find new abodes. The tide of time is against them in the walled city, unless the programme is to reduce it to ruins.



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